Deanna Zalas

The Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education now has two new members and a new president. On May 4, moments after new members Lorena Gasca and Ryan VenHorst were sworn in, the new school board voted 6 to 1 to elevate Riverside resident Deanna Zalas to the position of school board president. 

The previous president, Wes Smithing, was defeated in his bid for re-election to the school board, finishing last in a field of four in the April 6 election.

Zalas has been on the school board for two years. Laura Hruska, the longest-serving member of the school board at 14 years, cast the only vote against Zalas. 

Hruska has served on the District 208 school board longer than all the other board members combined.

“Ms. Zalas is a newer member on the board with half her time dealing with COVID,” said Hruska in a text message to the Landmark. “It’s always my thought a little more experience being on the board is beneficial.”

Zalas, however, emerged as the consensus choice of old and new members. She also personally reached out to her colleagues indicating her interest in seeking the board presidency.

“She just seems to be really well organized which is what we need,” Gasca said.

Ramona Towner, who finished third in the election, was unanimously re-elected vice president of the board.

Towner said that the board explored different options and that Zalas seemed suited to serve as president right now.

“I feel like this is the best fit for the personalities that we have on the board,” Towner said. “It was a matter of figuring out what was going to work best for everyone.”

Zalas, 48, works as the director of risk management for Cook County. She is married to Riverside Village Attorney Michael Marrs and is the mother of three RBHS students, a senior and freshmen twins.

“I indicated my interest in being the president,” Zalas said. “I think it was a combination of temperament and engagement in the issues that we have faced and that will be facing that was part of the dialogue I had with the new board members and the old board members.”

Zalas is more in line with the progressive bent of the new school board, with Gasca, VenHorst and Tom Jacobs, who nominated Zalas for president, all having strong left of center views. Towner describes herself as fiscally conservative but socially moderate-to-liberal. 

The new board is the most politically liberal District 208 school board in long time, perhaps ever. Four of the board members, Zalas, Gasca, VenHorst and Towner work in the public sector. VenHorst and Towner work are educators and Gasca works for Northeastern Illinois University on a federally funded project to promote college access for underserved youth.

Zalas is the first female president of the District 208 school board since 2005, when Janice Prescott left the board and position. During that time there have been six different men who have served as school board president. At least two other women, Barbara Purdy and Sherlane Biskowksi, have also served in the past as president of the District 208 school board.

Zalas takes over as president after a turbulent year dealing with the pandemic and after a school board campaign in which the teachers’ union, known as the RBEA, supported and funded the joint campaign of Gasca and VenHorst. 

Teachers did not like comments made by Smithing, Towner, and Hruska who all pushed hard for more in person school earlier in the school year and blamed the teachers union for stymieing those efforts last fall. At one board meeting last fall Hruska suggested contacting the school’s attorney to find ways to force teachers to teach in person.

In her two years on the board Zalas has not been especially outspoken but has asked incisive questions and sought to carefully analyze issues that the school board faced. She demands facts and data and often pushed administrators for more information and analysis.

Zalas said that with the pandemic ebbing and school expected to return to normal next year, it’s a good time to become president of the board.

“We are a real transition point, coming off of COVID, coming off the year that everyone has had,” Zalas said.

Zalas said she is looking forward to new initiatives. At her first meeting last week as president, Zalas proposed establishing a board committee to examine the transition back to normal school and to devise ways to combat the learning loss that has probably occurred during the past year.

Last month the school board approved a new mission statement, and Zalas now wants the board to develop new goals. She said current board goals are nearly a decade old and too focused on test scores and Advanced Placement. She wants new goals to reflect the diversity of the students who attend RBHS and reflect all kinds of achievement.

“The goals as they are written today are not necessarily comprehensive toward all student achievement, so I think with this new board you’re going to see some focus on setting goals that are demonstrative for all of our students,” Zalas said.

Zalas said that she is looking forward to the new ideas and energy that Gasca and VenHorst will bring to the school board, but she firmly rejected the idea that the RBEA will control the new school board.

“Some type of change was identified by the voters and these are the elected school board members,” Zalas said. “We have labor negotiations coming up in the next year. I come from a place of fiscal responsibility, so I think any assumption that myself or the board or the administration or the school, is going abdicate our financial responsibilities [is not the case].”

Zalas also hopes to lower the temperature at board meetings and in the community. She wants to curb the anger and divisiveness of the past year.

“I think there’s an abundance of grace that’s needed from all sides in this,” Zalas said.